Under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the president can designate countries whose governments engage in serious violations of religious freedom as countries of particular concern. The law then offers the president a menu of options for dealing with such countries, ranging from private demarches to limiting certain kinds of assistance, through full sanctions. Last year, the Bush administration failed to designate either Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan as countries of particular concern. A decision on the two countries' designation is expected from the U.S. administration in the coming weeks.
For nearly five years, the Uzbek government has persecuted individuals whose peaceful practice of Islam falls beyond state controls, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper, also released today. The paper details the arbitrary arrest, unfair trials and torture of hundreds of independent Muslims in Uzbekistan since October 2001, the last time the administration scrutinized that country's record on religious freedom. Turkmenistan, one of the most repressive countries in the world, in 1997 outlawed all religions except Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy.
In its letter to Powell, Human Rights Watch said that designating both countries would help reverse perceptions that the United States is unwilling to take to task its allies in the war against terrorism for serious human rights abuses.
"These are two very repressive governments with appalling records on religious persecution," said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. "The U.S. administration cannot duck those facts."
Andersen said that failing to designate Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as countries of particular concern would call into question the Bush administration's commitment to religious freedom. "If Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are not trampling on religious freedoms, then who is?" said Andersen. "This whole process of evaluating religious freedom will be seen as a completely cynical exercise unless the U.S. administration does the right thing on these two countries."
Among the groups most affected by the Turkmen government's draconian restrictions on religion are Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentacostalists, Baptists, Adventists and Hare Krishnas. Islamic groups also suffer state harassment. Last year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that the administration designate Turkmenistan a country of particular concern.
"Turkmenistan is a bastion of tyranny," said Andersen. "The administration's failure last year to act on the Commission's recommendation was disgraceful."
The Human Rights Watch briefing paper on Uzbekistan documents 116 convictions of religious prisoners on charges based on their membership in unregistered religious organizations, possession or distribution of "extremist" literature, and meeting for private prayer or Islamic study. Many other detainees are believed to be awaiting trial. Police beat and torture prisoners to coerce testimony. After conviction, prison officials frequently torture religious inmates and compel them daily to renounce their faith and ask the state's forgiveness.
Earlier this month, two religious prisoners, Muzafar Avazov and Husnidin Alimov, died in custody under ghastly circumstances that strongly indicated they had been tortured. A third, Husnidin Hikmatov, died at home in May two days after he was released because of injuries he sustained apparently from torture. He had been serving a 17-year sentence on "extremism" charges. A letter smuggled out of an Uzbek prison, described in the briefing paper, details some of the harrowing torture, including sexual assault, that religious prisoners suffer.
Last year, hundreds of religious prisoners-a small proportion of Uzbekistan's estimated thousands-were amnestied, but faced harassment and rearrest after their release.
"This year the Uzbek government has been utterly unrelenting in its arrest campaign," said Andersen. "And it is trying to persuade others that it's all part of the global campaign against terrorism. But in fact, it is undermining the Bush administration's principle that the war against terrorism not be a war against Islam."